Speaking and Loving

by | Jun 29, 2020

And who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:29

If you are like me, you spent many hours on Friday and Saturday planted in front of a screen, watching the condensed, online 224th “Baltimore” General Assembly. There is a series of news articles on the GA if you missed it. It was quite an experience, and by God’s grace we got through it. Congratulations and many, many thanks to Ruling Elder Commissioner Maria Cacarnakis and Teaching Elder Commissioner N’Yisrela Watts-Afriyie for their active and discerning engagement throughout.

In several ways, this GA was like any other. Leadership was acknowledged with the election of new Co-Moderators, Elder Elona Street-Stewart and Rev. Gregory Bentley. Worship was held, committee members were elected, and a budget was passed—though for the first time in some years, the budgets for the Office of the General Assembly and Presbyterian Mission Agency were unified. And unlike last General Assembly, there was very exact scrutiny put to the budget. And, of course, there was some controversy, some attempt to address the issues of the day, and some progress and disappointment, enacted within the confines of Robert’s Rules of Order, made more difficult by the limits of technology.

Because of the lack of in-person deliberation in committee and then in plenary, nearly all the overtures were referred to the 225th General Assembly, which is scheduled for July 2-9, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. The recommendation was to review the referred overtures, as well as actions of prior GAs, and pray, discern, and see whether some of the suggested actions could be implemented at the local level. That is, rather than wait for the General Assembly to make a pronouncement, new mission can happen now, at the grassroots. We can stay home and look around our doorstep, and realize that there are people right near us who are experiencing injustice, and who can teach us about their perspective and their history.

It became clear to me that several people seek to become commissioners or YAADs specifically because they want to be part of a national commentary on the issues of the day, and they were very disappointed that this was muted in 2020. So there was a mostly successful attempt (led by some folks from Southern California) to strengthen a statement “On the Church in This Moment in History” by naming certain groups who have been ignored even in discussions of justice, including Black women and girls. There is a task force on Black women and girls whose report was referred to 2022, but can be found here.

The discussion also raised a term that may be new to folks, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). The term highlights the unique challenges that African-Americans and Native Americans have within the context of the history of white privilege in the United States, while advocating for solidarity among all people of color.

There was little ability to interact with individuals in this General Assembly, but I led a small Bible Study group on Wednesday night that gave me a bit of perspective. There were six commissioners, and four of them were white pastors from “purple” areas who didn’t seem to have much contact with people of color in their context. One expressed disappointment that GA would not be able to produce guidance on how to fight racism in their lives. One commissioner, a black man, suggested that the best thing they can do is to just get to know the people in their local areas, and they will find the right way to respond that works for their particular situation.

It does seem to be true that GA is an opportunity to educate and empower Presbyterians to do justice in the world, and my prayer is that the commissioners and all the denomination take seriously the action of this GA, that we read carefully the various overtures that are waiting for 2022, and see how they can inspire and guide us to live faithfully in our local context. But the cynic in me says that the overtures, and all the discussion in this GA, will go the way of countless GA overtures before them—they are fought over, wordsmithed and researched, and then bound into the minutes and largely forgotten.

The cynic in me says that too many Presbyterians, even those who are proud of their social justice awareness, find it more comfortable to come together with hundreds of other Presbyterians every other year and make well-worded statements, rather than taking the direct and risky action of befriending the “others” in their very towns and cities and acting to directly impact their lives, every day of the year.

In all times, we Christians are guided by the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) And of course, the retort came swiftly: “And who is my neighbor?”  I confess this question came up often for me during this GA, because I fear that it is easier for many of us to write strong statements about whole peoples, than it is to sit down and share our hearts with an individual person who is not like us.

I understand the value in developing guiding documents that help people learn the issues of the day. But my hope is that we go beyond “book learning” to getting to know persons in our neighborhood, and with the help of the Holy Spirit we come to love them so much that their pain is our pain, that injustice against them is injustice against us all. It’s hard to do this, and hard when we don’t have guidelines that assure us that we will be successful. But the path of faith does not ensure success—all we are ensured of is grace. I believe our recent forays into the unknown territory of online church life help us practice this. But outgoing Co-Moderator Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri shared a poem by Antonio Machado that includes the statement translated as “Wayfarer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”

May we walk with our neighbors, listen to their stories, and as we go forth in love, may we create new paths of righteousness, which together we may walk humbly with our God.

In Christ’s love,